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A time for remembrance: Veterans feel pride, humility as Memorial Day approaches

The Lake Region Veterans Color Guard proudly flies the Stars and Stripes at the start of Detroit Lakes' Memorial Day Parade. (Tribune file photo)1 / 4
Ole Olson2 / 4
Tony Burkel3 / 4
Emil Dunham4 / 4

Memorial Day: As the very name implies, this uniquely American national holiday is a time for remembrance ... particularly of our Armed Services veterans and their sacrifices.

At Ecumen Detroit Lakes' Adult Day Services program, no less than seven military veterans can be found enjoying the daily activities and social interactions that it provides for the community's senior citizens — and this past Thursday, three of them sat down with us to discuss what Memorial Day means to them.

"I have a feeling of pride," says Ole Olson, who served as a communications officer with the U.S. Navy for six years in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"I guess we all do," said Tony Burkel, who was an engineer with the U.S. Army during World War II and served for a little over a year at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

At the same time, he added, his time in the Army is not something he thinks about often.

"I put it all behind me," Burkel said.

He was just barely old enough to join the Army, he added, so his memories of that time aren't as sharp as they once were. "I was just a baby," he said, but added with a twinkle in his eye that one of his favorite things about being a soldier was "chasing the girls in Hawaii."

Emil Dunham, who joined the Navy toward the end of the Korean War, serving from 1951-53, said he actually tried to enlist twice.

"The first time I got rejected because I had flat feet," he said. "The second time — no problem."

He said he enlisted with the Navy in order to avoid being drafted, which would mean he had no control over which branch of the service he entered.

Olson enlisted for similar reasons, while Burkel actually was drafted into the Army as soon as he was old enough to serve.

Though all three served in the military, their work was quite different. While Burkel's time was mainly spent helping to design and build bridges, Olson learned to interpret and send messages in Morse code, and also delivered top secret messages and packages to ships, airplanes and naval bases.

"I spent two years in Turkey, and two years in the United States," Olson said, adding that he also played in the Navy band for a while. "I played the baritone horn."

Durham's time in the Navy was mainly spent at sea: "I worked on the deck, and steered the ship, and did whatever else had to be done."

By the time he was discharged, Durham had managed to work his way up to the rank of "BM3," or petty officer third class, with the job of boatswain's mate (considered the Navy's oldest ranking, dating back to around the time of the American Revolution).

Dunham says that while he can't be as active in the local veterans' organizations as he used to be, one of the things he does enjoy doing is helping to put up the flags for the annual Avenue of Flags display at Oak Grove Cemetery.

The display, which includes around 650 full-size American flags floating in the breeze, plus another 1,300-plus grave marker flags placed next to the graves of military veterans buried at Oak Grove, will continue through Tuesday morning, when the flags will be carefully packed away and stored until next year.

Vietnam War veteran Dave Coalwell, who was one of those involved in starting up the Avenue of Flags event 29 years ago, says it reminds him of "an outdoor cathedral."

Coalwell will also be part of Detroit Lakes' Memorial Day Parade, as a member of the Lake Region Veterans Color Guard, which leads off the parade each year.

This year's parade starts at 10 a.m., stepping off from Veterans Memorial Park and continuing down Washington Avenue to the Pavilion, where there will be a short program. Coalwell will be the keynote speaker for the program, which will start after the parade has concluded, at approximately 10:30 a.m. The Detroit Lakes Middle School Marching Band is also scheduled to perform, both in the parade and at the program, where they will play "The Star Spangled Banner."

Besides the parade in Detroit Lakes, which is sponsored by the local American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and their respective auxiliaries, the Ogema VFW Post 9880 and its Auxiliary, along with the White Earth Veterans Association, will be gathering at the Ogema VFW Hall at 7:30 a.m., then begin making the rounds at area cemeteries in observance of Memorial Day.

The schedule includes stops at St. Columba's Episcopal Cemetery, White Earth, 8:15 a.m.; Bethel Lutheran Cemetery, White Earth, 8:30 a.m.; Assembly of God Cemetery, White Earth, 8:40 a.m.; Calvary Catholic Cemetery, White Earth, 8:50 a.m.; Aura Finnish Cemetery, Goat Ranch Road, 9:15 a.m.; Callaway Cemetery, Callaway, 10 a.m.; Ogema City Cemetery, Ogema, 10:30 a.m.; Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Cemetery, Ogema, 10:35 a.m.; Waubun City Cemetery, Waubun, 11:15 a.m.; St. Ann's Catholic Cemetery, Waubun, 11:30 a.m.; and Lake Grove Cemetery, 12 noon.

There will also be a Memorial Day Picnic at Egelund Church, located 10 miles north of Detroit Lakes on Richwood Road and 4.5 miles east on County Road 26. The picnic will be a potluck, so those planning to attend are asked to bring a dish to share. Free-will donations will be used for upkeep of the church and cemetery. Everyone is welcome to attend.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 18-plus years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Detroit Lakes School Board. 

(218) 844-1454